Posted by: Hil | December 9, 2008

An Ode to Bitter Food

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Over the last year, I’ve learned a lot about my own likes and dislikes when it comes to food.  I’m much more aware of what flavor combinations I enjoy and how food makes me feel.  One of the biggest lessons I have learned is a relatively simple one: I feel much more satisfied, physically and psychologically, when I make an effort to incorporate a variety of flavors and textures into my diet.  College food (like most mass produced food) is heavy on sweet, salt, and fat, but lacks much else in the flavor department.  I’ve now had a year to explore a wider variety of flavors and textures in home cooking, and I’m still amazed how much more satisfying real food is. 

One flavor that I’ve really grown to love is bitterness.  I know that many people don’t enjoy bitter foods, but I think that they can be really delicious and add a level of interest and dimension to food.  Bitter foods are not foods that you can eat mindlessly…they demand your attention.  If you can acquire a taste for bitter food, you’ll really expand your culinary horizons and will probably learn to like a number of foods that are extremely good for you.  So this post is a celebration of some of my favorite bitter foods. 

First on the list for me has to be coffee.  I do not under any circumstances put sugar in my coffee.  I like it dark, strong and rich (preferably French roast) with a splash of cream to mellow the bitterness slightly.  I do also enjoy the occasional latte.  Oddly enough, now that I eat relatively little sugar, I can really taste the natural sweetness of the steamed milk, which is a really tasty foil to the bitterness of the espresso.  To me, sugar hides the natural flavor.

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Another favorite bitter food is extra dark chocolate.  Most milk chocolate has well under 50% cocoa solids.  My latest chocolate of choice is Lindt Excellence with 85% cocoa solids.  I had to work my way up to liking chocolate this dark, but now it is my very favorite.  Lighter chocolates still taste good, but to me, nothing tastes as chocolatey as the dark stuff.  The flavor is so intense that a single square leaves me perfectly satisfied.  And oddly enough, when I crave chocolate, I crave the bitterness more than I crave the sweetness.  When chocolate is not available to me, a cup of strong decaf often satisfies my craving much better than a piece of sweet fruit.

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Many herbs also have a pleasantly bitter flavor.  I love using herbs in cooking or in fresh, unsweetened herbal teas.  The farmers market across from my summer job used to sell the strongest, most delicious unsweetened mint tea.

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Bitter greens like collards and kale were an acquired taste for me.  I had no idea how to cook them before this year.  While I have no idea if my method is “correct,” I’ve found that I love to steam them with a little red wine vinegar.  The slight sweetness and sourness of the vinegar tastes very good with the dark greens.  My body and my grocery bill were both happy when I learned to like these greens…there are few foods that are as healthy and cheap as dark leafy greens.

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I have loved grapefruit since I was a kid.  While I love all varieties, I prefer the less sweet, lighter varieties to the ruby reds.  White grapefruit tastes delicious with a sprinkling of brown sugar, but I like the other kinds straight.

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While there are many drinks that are far too bitter for my tastes, I have always been partial to the slight bitterness a Bombay and tonic with lime.  The herbal smell, the bitter-sweet tonic and the slight bitterness of the lime peel are, to me, amazingly refreshing on a hot summer day. 

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I’m very curious how other people feel about bitter foods.  Do you like them?  Hate them?  Do you like pairing them with other flavors?

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Responses

  1. Love this post!! I actually prefer more spicy and/or sweet foods.

  2. I don’t find that sauteed kale is bitter. If you want a bitter kick, try bitter melon.

    I used to hate it growing up, but now I find that it just needs an acquired taste, and I find it very refreshing – but of course, in minimal amounts. Grapefruit is delicious too, I don’t find it overwhelmingly bitter, only slightly. The juiciness makes up for it.

  3. VeggieGirl–I love spicy foods, too. I think I may write a post about those shortly.

    Sharon–I think the bitterness of Kale really depends on the variety you buy and how you cook it. Sauteeing it definitely mellows it and brings out the natural sweetness. I’ve never tried bitter melon, and I’ve always wanted to.

  4. I like all types:)

    That’s my favourite chocolate too! And while I don’t drink coffee, I’m obsessed with tea, and I never add anything to it. A couple times a year I’ll add a splash of Baileys or amaretto to black tea, and on the very rare occasion I’ll order a London Fog at a cafe (black tea with steamed milk). But most of the time I like it bitter- and green or white rather than black.

  5. I like bitter too. Not so much coffee, but 99% dark chocolate, grapefruit, bitter greens, unsweetened tea, tonic water – great.

    I will never say no to a fresh piece of fruit though – it probably ties chocolate for my favorite dessert but I usually go for the fruit because I’m a bit of a volume eater.

  6. I really like this post, it’s way original and fun!
    I’m totally into sweet and spicy foods.

  7. Great post, I am 100% with you, and have a serious love for each and every food featured! I am not so much a sweets/spicy gal, It’s all about the bitterness! Mustard greens, arugula, any bitter green actually! Im all about the gin and tonic myself. Girl after my own heart!

  8. I love sweets, but lately things are TOO sweet for me. I now prefer dark chocolate to milk!

    You should try broccoli rabe. It’s “bitter broccoli” – served with a little extra vigirn olive oil, it’s delicious and bitter.

  9. This is a great site! I was looking for info for a college paper that I am writing and stumbled across this one. I love food, but healthy food, that is full of flavor, like dark chocolate, black coffee and plain tea. The darker and stronger the better! This is making me hungy….great site!

  10. Thank you for this post. I’m a bitter fanatic. For chocolate I have a baking square bloc that is 100%. Great for those days when I just cant get enough. Broccoli has a delightful bitter taste that just makes my mind sing. sweet tastes can overwhelm. If you like taking your time to enjoy the subtleties in an impressionist painting- you should take a second try at bitter foods. I find that walnuts also have a fatty but bitter taste that is just heaven. I’d like to find ways to make balanced bitter dishes.

  11. thanks for this list.. we have this kris kringle and this week is to give something bitter.

    I’m not sure if I’m a fan of anything bitter. I definitely don’t like black coffee.

  12. Hi. I found your blog & thread when going online to seek out what significance liking bitter foods may have for me? I had a big bowl of broccoli rabe for dinner, grew up learning to love mustard, turnip & collard greens with turnip root, & have enjoyed ordering bitter melon dishes in Chinatown. I’m also a coffee drinker but don’t really go for black…def. like sweetening it slightly & adding milk. Don’t really like that strong tannin taste in tea & def. go for sweet there, as well. Even the bitter veggies for me need lots of seasoning to make them enjoyable. Vinegars, citric juices, hot spices too. What is it with cocktail “bitters’? Something gives me a feeling that I’m providing some kind of wonderful nutritional support with these foods. There is something in here regarding bowel functioning I think too? Aren’t bitter salts laxatives?


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